Rescue at 19,500 feet ties McKinley record

HELICOPTER: Pilot plucks injured climber off mountain.

May 13, 2011 

Stranded above 19,500 feet on the continent's tallest peak, the injured climber suffered frostbite and hypothermia as temperatures hit 30 below. His leg was broken. The wind gusted to 70 mph.

Another member of the man's expedition up Mount McKinley was dead -- or soon would be -- lower on the 20,320-foot mountain, the first fatality on McKinley this climbing season.

Meantime, saving the injured man would mean tying the record for the highest-ever helicopter rescue in North America, according to the National Park Service.

"It was a big deal," said helicopter pilot Andy Hermansky, as he recalled hovering 200 feet above the climber in a Eurocopter AS-350 B3.

The injured hiker had seemed disoriented by the thin air and severe cold he'd endured over the course of the day, Hermansky said in a phone interview.

A basket hanging on a 125-foot rope dangled from the helicopter, waiting to take the man to safety. But the climber seemed confused as the basket touched down a couple feet away from him. He stared at it for 20 or 30 seconds, Hermansky said.

"He didn't have far to scootch; it was like two feet away. ... It looked like he really didn't know what to do with it."

Finally, the man pushed himself inside.

"I was quite impressed, not only to survive up there, but to have the energy to get himself in," said Hermansky, who works for Temsco, a private helicopter company under contract with the National Park Service during the climbing season.

The helicopter started down the mountain. Hermansky held his descent to 1,000 feet per minute. Anything faster would create unbearable windchill for the man in the basket below, he said.

At Kahiltna base camp at 7,200 feet, rangers transferred the climber to a waiting LifeMed air ambulance that flew him to a hospital in Anchorage, said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.

It was one of only a handful of similar rescues ever performed, but there wasn't any time to celebrate for the pilot or mountaineering rangers on Denali: Another person was still missing.

FOUR CLIMBERS ROPED TOGETHER

The injured man had been part of a group of four climbers -- including a guide -- who approached McKinley's summit Wednesday.

The climbers were roped together, and initial reports from the Park Service said the group was descending the summit ridge when a man fell and broke his leg.

It's unclear if the team had ever reached the summit, McLaughlin said. Either way, they were near the top of the mountain at the time of the fall, she said.

The guide brought the injured climber down to a large, open area called the Football Field, the site of the helicopter rescue. The guide told rangers he put the man in a bivouac sack, a lightweight shelter, McLaughlin said.

The guide and the uninjured clients descended separately, McLaughlin said. It was unknown Friday why they split up.

At some point the guide also took a spill, McLaughlin said. He arrived at a 17,200-foot camp at about 3:45 a.m. Thursday with a suspected broken rib and frostbite.

Climbers at the camp called for help on a satellite phone. One of the uninjured climbers was seen several hours later coming down a part of the mountain called the Autobahn, and they helped that person, also frostbitten, back to camp, McLaughlin said.

There was still one more climber unaccounted for.

THE RESCUE MISSION

The National Park Service launched the search-and-rescue mission at about 8 a.m. Thursday, McLaughlin said.

The Alaska Air National Guard sent an HC-130 with pararescuemen aboard. It was midmorning when they spotted the climber with the broken leg at 19,500 feet waving to them, McLaughlin said.

High winds caused some delays, Hermansky said. The sky was clear, but the wind was fierce. About 10:45 a.m., he headed from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna base camp.

Unable to fly higher than 14,200 feet, rescuers continued to wait for a break in the wind, Hermansky said.

About 5 p.m., the weather calmed enough for Hermansky and ranger Chris Erickson to make a reconnaissance flight higher up the mountain. They spotted the injured man.

He waved, surprising the helicopter pilot.

"(He was) just sitting upright on the snow, and he raised his arms," Hermansky said. There was no shelter of any kind in sight, he said.

After one more flyby, Hermansky dropped Erickson at the high camp, attached a rope and rescue basket, and went to pick up the injured climber. About a half-hour later, the man was flying to an Anchorage hospital.

Hermansky and ranger Kevin Wright set out to get the other climber, who was near 18,000 feet.

On one flight, they hovered five or 10 feet above the climber. The man didn't move, Hermansky said.

"His face was black, I think his glove was off," Hermansky said. "At this point, it's very likely this guy is dead."

The body was placed in a canvas sling and transferred to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, where two Park Service ranger medics onboard confirmed that he had died. The cause of death was either unknown or unavailable Friday afternoon, McLaughlin said.

SEVERE FROSTBITE

The Park Service did not publicly identify anyone in the climbing party Friday. The agency was awaiting confirmation that next of kin for the deceased climber were notified, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said the injured man suffered severe frostbite. He was recovering from hypothermia and getting treatment for the broken leg, McLaughlin said.

"He was in much better shape today than he was last night," she said Friday morning.

Meanwhile, Hermansky and his mechanic were preparing the specialized helicopter -- which is capable of lifting more than it weighs -- for more trips up the mountain Friday to pick up rangers and equipment.

By Friday afternoon, rescuers had flown the two remaining injured climbers from the 17,200-foot high camp, according to the Park Service. Both suffered frostbite on their hands and feet following a night high on the mountain in the icy cold and blowing winds.

Only one other helicopter rescue in North America has been conducted as high up as Hermansky's on Thursday. His is the highest on Denali using the short-haul technique, the Park Service said.

"It's just something I'm glad I can be a part of, and the rangers are the brave ones, because they're hanging on the end of a line," Hermansky said. "I'm just the driver."

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